Instant NPCs for Fifth Edition D&D

by Mike Shea on 1 February 2016

RPG sage Monte Cook wrote an interesting article called PCs versus NPCs in which he discusses the time we often waste statting out NPCs. These NPCs, he argues, just show up, talk for a bit, and disappear forever. Here's an excerpt:

NPC (and creature) detail is one of the ways in which designers and GMs are often forced to waste a lot of time. That's because the game has all these great rules for fleshing out PCs and making them cool and interesting. A game that explores how well a PC is at combat, at interaction, at a wide variety of skills and actions, and makes all those things equally interesting is a great game. But then, it comes time to make NPCs.

In the article Monte is referring not just to our typical bartender NPCs but also to monsters and other potential combatants. He uses this article to promote the NPC design methods of the Cypher system (the RPG system that powers Monte Cook's Numenera roleplaying game) which uses a greatly reduced method for building NPCs, both combatants and non-combatants.

That's great for Cypher games, but what about 5e D&D? How can we strip NPC creation down so small that we don't even have to write anything down to run an NPC?

We likely can't design a system as simple the one in the Cypher system for combatant NPCs. Monsters in D&D have quite a bit of crunch to them with their six attributes, hit points, armor classes, attack scores and the like.

Interactive NPCs, however, don't usually need all that stuff. Most of the time they're not likely to draw a sword or get stabbed to the point that they need hit points or an attack bonus. For that quirky bartender we can come up with something simple.

The Divine Art of Making Shit Up

At its core, D&D 5e comes down to rolling a die, adding a modifier, and checking it against a difficulty check (DC). In just about any interaction that has a challenge, the DC is all we really need to come up with. And to come up with this, all we really need to do is think about how difficult it is.

Here's some simple math for creating an NPC.

When a PC wants to interact with an NPC in some way that might be challenging for example being diplomatic, lying their asses off, or threatening them; all we need to do is ask ourselves "On a scale of 10 to 20, how difficult is this?". The answer to that question is our DC check.

Any particular NPC may have strengths or weaknesses when dealing with the PC. Maybe they're not very easy to intimidate (DC 16) but might succumb to flattery (DC 11).

This curve isn't perfect. A DC 10 is still potentially a challenge. Many times things will be less challenging than DC 10 and, if they are, we might just skip the roll altogether.

"Roll and Tell Me What You Get"

Another technique, even easier than making up a DC, is to ask the player to roll a check and then, from the result, tell them what happens. This gets into the idea that there aren't just successes and failures but shades of gray. Someone who rolls really well may get something more than someone who just rolls in the middle. Someone who rolls a 1 might bring some hilarity to the situation.

When you're basing the results of an interaction on an arbitrary roll like this, focus on the total result and not just the die roll. If someone rolls a 2 but happens to be +12 to that particular skill, they might be clumsy about it but will still get the job done. Players want to feel empowered by the points they have in particular skills so even if their roll sucks, that power should be accounted for in the narrative.

The best thing about this "roll and tell me what you get" approach is that there is no math involved at all. It's even easier than Monte Cook's cypher system.

What About Combat Stats?

Coming up with DCs for interactions with NPCs isn't too hard, but what about combat? Again, we can't have a system as easy as the Cypher System for this, though it would be pretty cool if we could. Instead, we can choose one of two systems that still make it very easy.

The first system is to reskin the NPC with a stat block in the Monster Manual. The NPC section at the end of the book is pretty good for coming up with some arbitrary NPC combat statistics.

The second system is to use some basic math to build a quick stat block. First, you choose the challenge rating of the NPC and the use that to determine the rest. Here's a quick guide:

That's a handy formula to keep in mind which is why we added it to the 5e campaign worksheet.

Mix and Match

As always, you can mix and match these systems together as you run your game and choose whichever one you prefer at the moment. Sometimes its nice to let players know what the DC is for any particular check they're going to make while other times you might enjoy seeing how well or poorly they did without a specific DC in mind.

Sometimes you might want to pull up that mage stat block in the Monster Manual and wrap it around the angry sage the PCs decided to take down. Other times you just whip up some stats on a 3x5 card for that strange rock monster the PCs poked in the eye. Try them all out and see which ones you like.

As for fully statting out that bartender, however, you can probably leave those days safely behind you.

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